New Cassowary Study: Australia’s Most Dangerous Bird Was Once A Prehistoric Pet

Written by Austin S.
Published: October 5, 2021
© Sardo Michael/Shutterstock.com
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In a new study from the National Academy of Science, researchers have found that humans may have been raising cassowaries since the Late Pleistocene epoch, thousands of years ago!  By looking at cassowary egg remains from New Guinea, researchers were able to confirm that not only did early humans harvest and eat the eggs, but also probably raised the bird as a working pet, much like the modern domesticated chicken.

This discovery is both intriguing and shocking. Today, the cassowary is one of the most dangerous birds and the closest thing modernity has to a dinosaur. With a four foot claw, and a boney weapon growing out the top of its head, the cassowary can easily kill a human predator. Plus, we only just started domesticating chickens 9,500 years ago!

In addition, cassowaries are extremely protective of their eggs with male birds standing guard and attacking anything that approaches. Their deadly demeanors and protective nature does not scream “domesticated farm animal”.

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How Did Humans Raise Cassowaries?

If cassowaries are so deadly, how did our ancestors raise them? How were they able to collect their eggs for food?

Cassowaries are known to imprint. This means that after they hatch, the first thing they see they imprint on. Whatever this thing is, living or not, they believe it is their mother. They will follow it anywhere. Humans harnessed this unique characteristic, and according to researchers collected eggs just before they hatched.

However, there is also evidence that humans ate cassowary eggs earlier in the embryonic process. Though this may seem like a dark parallel to keeping cassowaries as pets, it is similar to modern day humans eating eggs, but keeping chickens. Plus, this was thousands of years ago when survival was the first and foremost goal of the human race.

How did researchers determine that our ancestors ate their cassowaries’ eggs? Well, when examining fragments discovered in the New Guinea rainforest and ranging from 6,000 to 18,000 years old. They determined the embryonic stage of the fragments when they were broken. Many of the fragments were burned and broken prior to the natural hatching stage of pleistocene cassowaries. The fragments indicated to the researchers that humans were intervening with the natural processes of cassowary life stages, probably as a resource for food. This is also consistent with other food-related studies in Asia, where prehistoric humans took part in a practice called “balut”. “Balut” involves many cultures in southwest Asia eating developing embryos.

By raising the cassowaries and having them imprint on their human caretakers, humans were able to get around the complicated dangers of harvesting eggs from wild cassowaries.

The Impact of Cassowary Studies

This study has long lasting impacts in the science world because of the clues it leaves about prehistoric bird and human relations. Many prehistoric birds such as New Zealand’s moas and Madagascar’s elephant birds’ populations drastically dropped with the introduction of human groups in their environments. Cassowaries have always been an outlier in the masses of avian extinctions. Populations still exist in New Guinea and Australia.

By studying the relationship between early humans and cassowaries in the Pleistocene New Guinea will give new insight into the relationship between large birds and humans. This study and further research will also inform resource development and depletion trends in the prehistoric New Guinea rainforests as well as human occupation in regions once considered not occupied by early foragers.

Learn More About Cassowaries

Want to learn more about the cassowary? Check out A-Z Animals’ other articles and studies regarding this fascinating bird:


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Cassowary Size - Cassowary on black background
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About the Author

Growing up in rural New England on a small scale farm gave me a lifelong passion for animals. I love learning about new wild animal species, habitats, animal evolutions, dogs, cats, and more. I've always been surrounded by pets and believe the best dog and best cat products are important to keeping our animals happy and healthy. It's my mission to help you learn more about wild animals, and how to care for your pets better with carefully reviewed products.

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